The Mayor, Big Gulps, and Freedom

By now we’ve heard of NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s effort to ban the big soft drink slurps in the interest of health.  Many see this as an important step toward better health.  Others see it as an overreach by “Big Brother” or the “nannie state.”

Daniel Lieberman, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, had this interesting twist in an opinion piece in the NY Times on June 6:

“Lessons from evolutionary biology support the mayor’s plan: when it comes to limiting sugar in our food, some kinds of coercive action are not only necessary but also consistent with how we used to live.

“We humans did not evolve to eat healthily and go to the gym; until recently, we didn’t have to make such choices. But we did evolve to cooperate to help one another survive and thrive. Circumstances have changed, but we still need one another’s help as much as we ever did. For this reason, we need government on our side, not on the side of those who wish to make money by stoking our cravings and profiting from them. We have evolved to need coercion.”

First, let’s remind ourselves that evolution contains no ethical values.  Indeed, to extend the evolutionary concept of “survival of the fittest” into intentional policies leads to horrible effects.  The Judeo-Christian doctrine of human beings as “God’s image” gives us an ontological value untouched by weakness, dependency, wantedness or survivability.  Evolutionary thought cannot provide such value to humanity nor dare it try (or it is untrue to itself), for we are animals and nothing more.

So, to arrive at the notions of “cooperation” and “thriving” and “helping” with a teleological goal in mind requires the importation of ethical values from some kind of thought system other than evolution or any other kind of science.  (Ultimately, that “thought system” is religious, but I won’t go there right now.)

Second, to coerce people is to judge that your own value is not only superior to that of others, but important enough that you will exert power against others—they will see it your way or else!  That’s quite a power, and we generally feel that only the “government of the people” should have it and should use it only in compelling cases.  “Don’t pass a mandate you aren’t willing to kill over” is not a bad caution.

Third, where will this end?  Proceeding from the lesser to the greater, if compelling conduct on soft drinks is a valid use of government power, how many more issues more important than too much sugar should lead to government coercion?  How about coercion in favor of “good” religion and against “bad” religion?  How about coercion in any area where government money is involved (which is just about everywhere)?

Liberty gets messy, but I’d sure rather live under the free and realistic thoughts of Jefferson and Madison than under the loving coercion of the mayor.  I hope his effort loses its “phizzzz”!


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